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September 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»dexter

Slice of Life

There's a throwaway joke during the first season of Dexter for the obsessive serial killer fiction audience: the titular character, fearing suspicion by his own police department, sneaks in and removes his alias from a list of controlled-substance purchasers. The name he erases is "Patrick Bateman," also known as the American Psycho.

It's worth a snort, and thankfully the show is smart enough not to dwell on it any longer. But it's interesting in that the two characters could barely be farther apart, except for their shared interest in murder. Bret Easton Ellis's killer yuppie was obsessed with meaningless pop culture and acquisition. The running gag of the novel was that Bateman's homicidal tendencies were barely separable from the greed and narcissism that he shared with his colleagues.

Dexter Morgan, on the other hand, comes across as a reluctant psychopath. Michael C. Hall pulls what menace he can out of the character, but his fangs are basically pulled early--Dexter's an amoral killer, but his foster father trained him to act normal and only kill other murderers, which turns the show's "shocking" twist into something more like a very grisly arrest sequence. We're never really in doubt that the people Dexter kills are anything other than scum, so we're disinclined to feel bad when he offs them. The impulse is really nothing more than the usual cop-drama bad-guy punishment sequence made more explicit (and perhaps, for much of the audience, more darkly gratifying).

This is a little unfortunate. I've come to prize fiction that makes the audience uncomfortable with its protagonist, which a show about an unrepentant serial killer could have certainly accomplished. But it also gives Dexter the opportunity to explore slightly more fertile emotional ground. Even when he's hunting his rival, the Ice Truck Killer, Dexter's real conflict is with himself: he's been pretending to be a normal, caring person for so long that he begins to become that person, although he tries to deny it. He tells us again and again that he's emotionless, but can't stop himself from enjoying the company of the people around him, and becoming upset when they're taken away.

Dexter lacks the vocabulary to express this directly, which is one of the pleasures of Hall's performance. He claims to have chosen his girlfriend for her "damaged" fear of intimacy, but is oddly charmed as she comes out of her shell, and off-handedly refers to her as "enchanting." His worries about his sister are tangible--"If I could have feelings at all, I'd have them for Deb," he says, unaware that he protests a bit too much. The pangs of feeling are still muffled, but the overall progression of the show is to raise their outlines and see how the character reacts.

What's still unclear is whether Dexter's human side is something that always existed in some form, or if his pretense is beginning to take more concrete form. I think the scripts are trying to say that it's the former, but the latter is a lot more fascinating. It's cynical, but also optimistic: it expresses a hope for change, and that a person could reinvent themself into the face that they present to the world. Which is kind of a nice message, for a show about a blood-spatter expert who kills people according to a twisted moral code in his off-hours.

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